More radiation cleanup to cost SEMO $292,000

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Southeast Missouri State University discovered more radioactive contamination in its science buildings and will have to spend $292,000 on testing and cleanup work, school officials said Tuesday.

The latest contamination comes two years after the university spent more than $1 million to clean up areas in Magill Hall, contaminated when radioactive americium-241 was spilled several years ago.

School officials believe the Magill spill occurred sometime between 1994 and 1996 when a safe containing the chemical was moved into a basement storage room. The spilled chemical leaked out around the safe door. Contamination also was found in a chemistry lab where the radioactive material had been used more than 20 years ago.

During a January study of the sewer system serving Magill and Rhodes halls by the university's environmental contractor, Science Applications International Organization, small amounts of radioactive materials turned up in acid dilution pits. The pits were designed to dilute any concentrated acids being flushed down drains.

Last month, the university's radiation safety officer, biology professor Walt Lilly, found radioactive contamination on a chemistry table being stored in nearby Johnson Hall, school officials disclosed Tuesday. SAIC was called in and the room was closed off pending cleanup work.

Not public areas

The sewer pits aren't in public areas, and contamination in them is unrelated to the Magill spill, said Dr. Chris McGowan, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. It likely happened in the 1970s when lab users cleaned contaminated equipment.

No health problems surfaced two years ago, and school officials say there's no serious health risks now.

McGowan said, "It's not a major issue health-wise for us unless somebody was licking the table."

The contaminated areas have been closed off from public access.

Last year, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission fined Southeast $11,000 for failing to take radiation surveys to determine the hazards, for failing to control activities to avoid overexposure, and for possessing radioactive material that wasn't authorized in the school's NRC license.

McGowan said school officials weren't surprised to find further contamination.

"Contamination was so widespread we expected to find contaminated equipment," McGowan said.

The chemistry table probably came out of the same Magill Hall lab where radioactive contamination was found two years ago.

But the bulk of the contamination at that time was in the basement of Magill Hall. McGowan said that was far worse than the current radiation problem.

Small amount

McGowan said only a small amount of americium radiation was found in the acid pits connected to the sewer drains serving Magill and Rhodes halls. Americium hasn't been used in university chemistry labs for more than two decades, officials have said.

Still, the latest contamination is enough of a concern that the university, in consultation with the NRC, plans to spend $292,000 to inspect and clean up the sewers serving Rhodes and Magill halls, inspect all campus buildings for equipment, fixtures or furniture that might have once been used in Magill Hall and study the health risk including probably testing of some university employees.

Dr. Ivy Locke, vice president of business and finance at Southeast, said the university plans to pay the expenses with money from a contingency fund. The fund was set up with $472,000 in insurance claim money that the university received as reimbursement for the previous radiation cleanup work, she said.

Most of the work will be done by Science Applications International Organization, which did the testing and cleanup work at Magill Hall two years ago.

The inspection of other campus buildings is expected to cost $12,000, with about half of that money going to pay about 20 graduate science students who will be recruited to do the work. Consulting fees will take up the rest of the cost, McGowan said.

University officials hope to do the visual inspection within the next couple of weeks to see if there are chemistry lab tables or other items from Magill Hall that are now in other campus buildings. Any such items then will be checked with radiation-detecting equipment.

University officials hope to have an environmental waste hauler remove all the contaminated objects by the end of June.

McGowan said the university is waiting on final approval from the NRC before proceeding with the testing and cleanup work.

NRC officials couldn't be reached for comment on Tuesday.

335-6611, extension 123

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